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Young Matt Masters, an Ozark Mountains moonshiner, hates the father he has never seen, who apparently deserted Matt's mother and left her to die. His obsession contributes to the hatred rampant in the mountains. However, the arrival of a stranger, Daniel Howitt, begins to positively affect the mountain people, who learn to shed their hatred under his gentle influence. Still, Matt does not quite trust Howitt.....Written by
Jim Beaver <email@example.com>
One of over 700 Paramount Productions, filmed between 1929 and 1949, which were sold to MCA/Universal in 1958 for television distribution, and have been owned and controlled by Universal ever since. See more »
When Old Mat goes into the house at Moaning Meadow and opens the window there are papers (probably sheet music) on the piano. When the camera angle changes the papers are gone. See more »
The bigger the man, the deeper the imprint. And when he's in love, he suffers knowing it's a dead end.
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Beneath the somewhat awkward narrative lies an affecting spiritual parable, about hate and redemption. The hatred Matt (Wayne) and his aunt Mollie (Bondi) have towards Matt's dead father is poisoning their lives and those lives around them. Never mind that they don't know the details surrounding the father's absence while Matt's mother and Mollie's sister dies alone and unattended. Now Matt has sworn a blood oath to kill his father whom he's surprisingly never seen, having been adopted instead into Mollie's family. Meanwhile, Mollie spews venom around her household that's affected her husband and everyone else.
Then, into this backwoods den arrives a mysterious stranger Howitt (Carey) with a load of money and city ways. He doesn't preach any kind of redeeming sermon. Instead, he selflessly ministers to the sick, puts moonshiners to work at a better wage, and buys Matt's now abandoned cabin site for an outlandish price. He's got "good man" written all over him. In short, he's a transformative figure to all but Mollie and Matt who persist in their poisonous grudge.
It's easy to see Howitt as a religious symbol though the movie's spirituality is pretty much limited to revealing beams of sunlight from above. (Rather surprisingly, no mention is made of biblical religion among Ozark folks known for their literalist beliefs.)
But, to me, the real spiritual symbol is the apparent simpleton, Pete (Lawrence), one of Mollie's sons. The story is that he was normal until a bolt of lightning struck him at the same time Matt's mother died. Now, I suspect the story and its timing suggest some kind of mysterious passage from dying mother to nephew Pete. It appears, however, to be a curse on Pete, since from then on he behaves like a grunting primitive, unable to speak coherently.
But consider two things. It's Pete's fateful struggle with Mollie, his mother, that finally forces her to consider the error of her ways, something not even Howitt has been able to achieve. Second, is the movie's central scene, at least in my little book. That's the powerfully moving shot of Pete alone and wordlessly picking at motes amid a glowing beam of sunlight through a small window. The message seems clear. Pete alone is in contact with something more ethereal than the Ozarks and moonshine or even Howitt. Whatever that communion is must remain both symbolic and mysterious. I also expect it's no accident that the movie cast the darkly colored Mark Lawrence in the role since he looks nothing like the rest of Mollie's family.
Now, I'm neither particularly religious nor spiritual. But I do appreciate this aspect of the film, which I believe is both intelligently and artistically implied.
The movie itself is a photogenic marvel as others point out. The colors are so lush I hardly recognized the Big Bear locations, where as an LA resident, I used to hike. Moreover, I really like the way the movie refuses to glamorize the casting of Sammy, the ingénue. Betty Field is perfect for the part, with her average looks but uncommon liveliness. She injects real spark into the proceedings. Carey too is well chosen. With his easy smile and affable manner, he wins us over quickly, making his showdown in the meadow with Matt something of a shocker. Somehow, it's odd seeing Wayne without a cowboy hat and with his real hair. Still, he's fine in the part, showing why he's generally underrated as an actor. I guess my only complaint is with Bondi who spreads the bile on pretty thickly. Then again, maybe that's what it takes in a family with a bunch of strapping roughnecks.
All in all, the movie's something of a sleeper, even though it never made it into Wayne's canon of classics, probably because Wayne is not the central character, despite the poster depiction. Too bad. Because both the story and the visuals deserve to be better known, inasmuch as the humane message remains as enduring now as it was then.
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